When Wolves Hunt...
By Dave Kopell

 

    When wolves hunt, they pick out the easiest targets, at the fringe of the herd. Gun control also specializes in picking the most vulnerable targets, those who are the least able to fight back. In the United States, the strategy of picking on the most vulnerable targets has often resulted in gun control being aimed at the poor, or minorities.

    A case in point is Senator Barbara Boxer's proposed ban on inexpensive guns.  Proponents of the Boxer ban emphasize that they are not targeting expensive hunting rifles, but merely want to ban cheap "Saturday Night Specials."  The very phrase "Saturday Night Special" contains a covert racist appeal, since the phrase derives from a combination of "suicide special" (a type of low-quality revolver from the late 1800s) and "niggertown Saturday night."

    The campaigners against 'Saturday Night Specials" or "junk guns" make sanctimonious claims about just wanting guns to be safe and reliable.   Yet their proposed bans always contain an exemption allowing the police to possess and carry such guns as if the police should have unsafe and unreliable firearms.  The police exemption shows that the objective of these handguns is not getting rid of unreliable guns, but rather taking guns away from poor people.  If legal regulations make it impossible for a company to manufacture a $70 handgun, then people who cannot afford expensive guns are deprived of the practical ability to defend themselves.

    After John Hinckley's assassination attempt, Handgun Control, Inc., instigated a lawsuit against the company that had made Hinckley's small gun.  (Had Hinckley used a bigger, more expensive gun, Mr. Brady and President Reagan would probably both have been killed.)  The federal district court in Washington, D.C., rejected the suit, and noted that laws aimed at "Saturday Night Specials" have the effect of selectively disarming minorities who, because of their poverty, must live in crime-ridden areas.

    As a 1985 study by Professors James Wright and Peter Rossi for the National Institute of Justice concluded: "The people most likely to be deterred from acquiring a handgun by exceptionally high prices or by the non-availability of certain kinds of guns are not felons intent on arming themselves for criminal purposes (who can, if all else fails, steal the handgun they want), but rather poor people who have decided they need a gun to protect themselves against the felons, but who find that the cheapest gun in the market costs more than they can afford to pay."

    The Boxer gun ban, like similar bills being pushed in the California legislature and California cities, is an updated version of the old Tennessee "Army and Navy" law.  In 1870 the Tennessee legislature barred the sale of any handguns except the "Army and Navy model."  The ex-confederate soldiers already had their high quality "Army and Navy" guns; but cash-poor freedmen could barely afford lower cost, simpler firearms not of the "Army and Navy" quality.

    Tennessee's law to prevent blacks from arming themselves was hardly uniquie.  For most of American history, gun control laws were primarily directed against blacks.  In 1644, Virginia's first recorded legislation about blacks barred them from owning guns.  In the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision, United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney announced that blacks were not citizens; if they were, he warned, there would be no legal way to deny them firearms.  Immediately after the Civil War, several Southern states enacted 'black codes," which were designed to keep the ex-slaves in de facto slavery and submission. Mississippi's provision was typical:  No freedman "shall keep or carry fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition...."

    Although Reconstruction and the Fourteenth Amendment forced Southern states to repeal laws against blacks having guns, most Southern states followed Tennessee's lead, with facially neutral laws banning inexpensive guns, or requiring gun permits.  As one Florida judge explained, the laws were 'passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers... [and were] never intended to be applied to the white population."

    In Michigan, handgun permit laws were enacted after a 1925 incident in which Dr. Ossian Sweet ' a black physician, shot and killed a person in a mob that was attacking his house because he and his family had just moved into an all-white neighborhood. The Detroit police stood nearby, refusing to restrain the violent mob.

    In New York City the Sullivan Law enacted in 1911 had been aimed mainly at immigrant Italians and Jews, but the law was also enforced unequally against blacks.  For example, in 1966 a mob burned the headquarters of the W.E.B. Du Bois Club while New York City police looked on.  When a club member pulled his pistol to hold off the mob while he fled from the burning building, the police arrested him for illegal gun possession. No one in the mob was arrested for anything.

    In 1976 Ormistan Spencer, a black, moved into the white neighborhood of Rosedale, Queens. Crowds dumped garbage on his lawn, his children were abused, and a pipe bomb was thrown through his window.  When he responded to the menacing crowd by brandishing a gun, the police confiscated the gun and filed charges against him.

    Racially motivated violence is not the only threat to which blacks are more vulnerable than whites.  A black in America has at least a 40 percent greater chance of being burgled and a 100 percent greater chance of being robbed than a white.  In many jurisdictions, the number of lawful self-defense homicides committed by blacks far exceeds the number committed by whites, even though blacks are a much smaller percentage of the population.

    The ban on so-called "assault weapons" (ordinary rifles with politically incorrect aesthetics) was driven by an incessant propaganda campaign from Handgun Control, Inc., claiming that the guns were the "weapons of choice" of gangs.  These guns were contrasted with "sporting" firearms. The subtext, of course, was an effort, ultimately successful, to convince hunters who lived in the suburbs that "their" guns were not at risk.  The anti-gunners just wanted to take away guns from "gang members" in the inner cities.

The bait-and-switch worked.  Not until after the assault weapons" bans enacted in New Jersey, New York City and elsewhere became law did many gun owners realize that their MI Carbines or Ruger 10/22 rifles were now illegal "assault weapons."

    Until blocked by a federal court, the police in Chicago would enter public housing buildings without a warrant, and conduct room-to-room searches for guns.   The searchers made no distinction between guns used in crimes and guns owned for self-defense, as the searchers tore apart mattresses, emptied drawers and ransacked apartments.  The Chicago police chief at the time declared his admiration for Nazi and Communist Chinese police practices.  The Clinton administration praised the searches, and has been pushing for a complete ban on gun possession in all public housing units, with residents forced to "consent" to warrantless searches of their homes.

    The NRA meanwhile, brought suit against a public housing gun ban in Portland, Maine.  The Maine Supreme Court ruled that the Portland housing authority had no power to impose the gun ban, since Maine has a preemption statute, which specifies that gun laws must be made by the state legislature, not local governments.

    Every family in this country deserves to be able to protect themselves, whether they are rich, poor or inbetween; and whether they are black, white or any other color.  That's what Dr. Ossian Sweet fought for seven decades ago, and that's what the gun rights fight is stilI about today.

Dillon Press
April, 1999